Building Team Relationships as an Agile Coach

Only by creating a relationship based on trust can agile coaches be effective in aiding teams with an agile adoption. Joel Bancroft-Connors says the best start is actually to do nothing. Spend time observing the team first. This helps you understand the people and processes, which will help you determine the best course of action.

They say you have one chance to make a first impression. If your first impression as an agile coach is that of an overbearing know-it-all—and come on, coaches, you know we all can be—then you've just closed a lot of doors before you ever had a chance to be invited in.

"Invited in" is the key phrase here. An agile coach can't help a person, team, or organization unless he or she is invited, but that invitation can be easily revoked. Only by creating a relationship based on trust can we be effective in aiding an agile adoption. But how do we do that?

I find that the best start is actually to do nothing. Spend time observing the team first. This helps you understand the people and processes, which will help you determine the best course of action.

The 90-Day Rule

As an agile coach, your first three months with an organization should be for building relationships. (If you're an outside consultant, this is cut down to "The 30-Day Rule” because your entire engagement may only be around ninety days). Trying to shorten the relationship-building period any more than that, however, comes at a significant risk. If you're doing a contract of less than three months, you're not a consultant, you're a trainer, and you need to approach things differently. 

If a CEO comes in on day one and fires half the executive staff, employees will tend to distrust the CEO for making a sweeping decision without knowing anything about their company. If, however, the CEO spends three months going around and meeting with people, listening, and engaging, then fires half the executive staff, it’s perceived more as an educated decision.

This applies to you as well. You can be the world's gift to agile coaches and the company may have literally begged you to help them, but if you come in on the first day and tell people everything is wrong, you've just set up an adversarial relationship and ruined your credibility. Get to know how things work first.

However, “observation” doesn’t mean you should spend your first three months with an organization sitting in a corner and watching. During this time, there are three tools you can use to create understanding, trust, and good relationships: introduction interviews, agile observation interviews, and shoe-leather coaching.

Introduction Interviews

Before you jump right into asking the tough questions about the organization, it is immensely important to get to know the people you’ll be posing those tough questions to. Likewise, it helps if they know a little about you. When you're just a stuffed shirt asking, "What's your organization’s biggest challenge?" the quality of the answers you get is going to be much less than when you ask someone you’ve chatted with about kids and pastimes.

The goal of the introduction interview is to build a relationship. This can be a formal or informal event, only you don't want to dive too deep into anything specific about work yet. The two main guidelines are to go where the conversation takes you and to respect boundaries—not everyone will want to share personal information.

Here's a general outline of what I cover in an introduction interview:

  • Introduce yourself and give a quick tour of your work experience (under fifty words, really) and some personal background, such as where you live, hobbies, etc.
    • For example: “My foundations are in customer support, where user focus was key. After a brief stint in product management I moved to project management and discovered my love for helping teams improve. That eventually led me into coaching and here.”
  • Ask the person how long he’s been with the company and what he did before this
  • Ask about hobbies and nonwork pursuits
  • Follow up on things he said with specific questions (this is key)
  • Ask if they have any questions. If the questions have to do with the agile transformation, it's OK to say, "I don't know yet." Make it clear that you're learning how the organization works so you can offer the best advice that fits into the existing systems

At one of my former companies, I spent maybe an hour at my desk every day. I was out and about talking with people. I made a special effort to learn names as I went because calling people by name as we passed in the hallways had a noticeable positive impact.

By the time I started working directly with the teams, I had spent time with each individual, and it allowed us to dive right into working and still be relaxed.

Agile Observation Interviews

The idea for performing agile observation interviews is directly based on the Manager Tools podcast "Jump Starting Internal Customer Relationships." These interviews are formal meetings, set up in advance, where you provide the questions ahead of time so people can prepare. They should take place a significant amount of time after the introduction interviews.

The goal of these interviews is to talk with all your stakeholders and ask the same set of questions to everyone. By asking the same questions, you will be able to take the qualitative answers and form a quantitative map of where the organization is. From here you can create relationship maps, a prioritized list of impediments, early engagement plans, and more.

The secondary, and no less important, benefit of these interviews is that they generate trust. Where the introduction interview started your relationship with employees, the observation interview deepens it because you are asking them their opinions and doing the most important thing a coach can do: listen.

These are the agile observation interview questions I use:

  • How is success measured here?
  • Why do you want to adopt agile principles and values?
  • What do you and your organization need and expect from me as your agile coach?
  • What metrics will you use to measure the success of the agile transformation?
  • What’s your perception of the current organization that is perhaps not shown through the metrics and reporting?
  • What feedback or guidance do you have for me or my team? What feedback or guidance would you give someone new coming into this organization?
  • What is the biggest challenge you or your organization faces today?

The first time I used this informational interview style proved to me just how powerful and critical it is. About three weeks into my time with the company, my boss wandered by for a chat. He let me know he'd had a bunch of people come by his office or contact him about me. Unfortunately, my boss had a bit of a sense of humor, and of course my heart jumped right into my throat. But after a suitable pause, as I quickly rewrote my resume in my head, he said everyone had been praising how much I was doing and that they were so glad I was on board. I'd listened my way into being one of the most trusted people in the organization in just three weeks.

Shoe-Leather Coaching

This is the agile version of "management by walking around." In the beginning of your tenure with a new company, you need to be putting a lot of steps on your fitness tracker of choice. During this time you want to attend all the regular meetings and events and watch as many of the day-to-day processes as possible. Stay curious, ask lots of questions, really listen to the answers, and thank everyone for their time.

Observation Is the First Step

When you start coaching a company that wants to adopt agile processes, it can be tempting to jump right in with new implementations and ideas. But remember that observation is a critical phase in an agile transformation. Instead, listen your way to earning employees’ trust and learn what the organization is really like. Then you'll be ready to move forward and help the team.

User Comments

gowri goli's picture

Thank you very much for your indepth appraoch on how to deal with a new assignemnt. Agile is about transformation and as a Coach we have to transform ourself to understand the current culture and mindset of people and attempt bring a non intrusive change. Thank you for your effort in sharing your knowledge.

April 9, 2017 - 9:35am
Ike Emeribe's picture

Sound approach! Thanks for sharing. I really needed this and will definitely put this to practice.

December 27, 2018 - 4:29pm

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