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The Balance of Coaching v. Mentoring on Agile

by Sococo Bob 

Embracing continuous improvement is critical for Agile teams, and an excellent way to pursue that goal is by tapping into the expertise and experiences of a mentor. Or a coach.

Wait.

Which is it? A mentor or a coach?

The differences between coaching and mentoring are so truly subtle that unless you either are one yourself or have worked with one before, it’s easy to treat the roles synonymously in your mind. But they’re actually not the same thing, and understanding the difference between the two roles is vital to discovering the best path for your Agile team’s transformation.

Coaching v. Mentoring: What’s the Difference?

In short, coaches serve the position, while mentors serve the person.

Coaching is generally reserved for addressing issues that arise in the workplace. A coach’s main role is to create and pursue specific, actionable goals that improve performance.

Mentoring, on the other hand, is about creating a long-term, more informal relationship between two individuals in order to share wisdom and advice that will impact a career over time.

Because of this, coaches often have a more formal relationship bound by time limits. Usually, they are experts in the same field as they person or team they are helping and have been formally trained to serve as a coach. They speak to a person about how to improve performance with a focus on instruction and monitoring.

Mentors, on the other hand, don’t necessarily share the same industry-specific experience, but they do share valuable life experiences and act as advisors accordingly. Their focus is on establishing a connection and providing the sort of helpful wisdom that will guide the mentee forward throughout their career, not just while at a certain job. Mentors work with a person to help that person become their best self.

When to Mentor and When to Coach

Understanding the role of a coach and a mentor makes it much easier to figure out when and how to best serve your team. Are you seeking to provide a recently hired developer with guidance as they navigate their burgeoning career? Or, are you seeing flaws in how your ScrumMaster is facilitating a project and think they would perform better with some help?

When you seek to provide more general guidance and advice, you’re acting as a mentor. But as your problems become more nuanced and in-the-weeds—or if your goals for improvement are concrete and immediate—it’s time to coach.

Tips for Coaching on Agile

Perhaps the most important Agile principle to remember as a coach is to value individuals and interactions over processes and tools. It is your job to uplift, encourage, and guide people on the path to Agile transformation—so your approach has to embrace their individualism, even if you’re working within a large organization. Here are a few tips for coaching the people around you in an Agile environment:

Ask Questions

Mentors share their expertise. Coaches help teams seek solutions. Because of this, sometimes the best thing you can do is be silent. Your listening skills are the most important tool you have as an Agile coach—use them. Instead of doing all the talking, encourage your team to think for themselves by asking powerful questions.

As professional coach Ken Jacobs puts it, “It’s really about believing in the client’s wisdom, it’s about empowering clients to get in touch with that wisdom… It’s much more about asking questions than giving answers.”

Get Your Hands Dirty

Particularly if you’re brought in from the outside to work with a struggling Agile team, being a good coach requires facilitating trust and respect from the get-go. After all, having a new person come in and tell you how to be better at your job is intimidating, to say the least. You’ll have to get your hands dirty if you want people to follow your plans.

Show the team how it’s done, and then slowly hand the reins over, step-by-step. Supporting them as they take ownership of the changes around them will help you build trust and confidence among the team in the new way of doing things.

Reflect and Revise

We’ve all seen how easy it is for coaches of all kinds to overreact in the heat of the moment (ahem… Pete Carroll…). If you’re serving as an Agile coach, that means the team you work with has room for improvement in their workflows—and problems are bound to arise. When they do, resist the urge to rush in. Take time to reflect, process the problem at hand, and calmly seek solutions together as a team.

Become an Agile Coach

To become an Agile Coach, what matters most is your knowledge of Agile practices and your ability to balance the skills of a project manager with the characteristics of a leader. But where do you start?

There are programs across the country that train leaders to become professional coaches. SolutionsIQ “leverages deep experience and mastery in Agile coaching to help you identify the obstacles preventing your teams from delivering consistent customer value.” They focus on both technical and workflow oriented training to help Agile coaches of all experience levels navigate the real-world challenges facing their teams.