Engaging coaches can be expensive and time-sapping. It is challenging to define measurable goals and even harder to show benefits. But by taking an experimental approach to coaching, you can keep control and maximise the value external experts provide.

In February 2018, an Australian Government Department invited iQA (IntegrationQA) to help a program in the early stages of Agile adoption. Some good habits were taking hold. Others were lapsing.

Capability Quadrants

Targeted coaching raises both skills and desire to achieve

This situation is common. When organisations have a constant delivery imperative, well-established traditional methods, and a long culture of siloed development, slipping back into old mechanisms is as easy as breathing in.

iQA proposed to raise the teams’ agile capability and development practices, through targeted coaching and measured actions. Targeted coaching would lift capability in areas of most need, further embed good practice, and reinforce the cultural change to agility.

Make the team’s capability visible

But where should you start? When teams are beginning their agile journey, little reliable data exists that can be used to direct change. It is tempting to advance on a broad improvement front with general training, and high-level, abstract consulting.

Trent Mason and Hamish Armstrong suggested a month-long experiment targeting areas determined by direct measurement, focussed interviews and objective observation of the team. Transparent evidence combats uncertainty and builds on solid, scientific foundations.

A time limit is essential in such experiments; not all teams respond well to a coach’s presence and a formal moment for re-evaluation and possible pivot gives clients deliberate control of the engagement.

Measure capability across multiple categories

With coaching help, the teams ranked their behaviour and practice against modern techniques. Evaluations consisted of questionnaires, interviews and observations across four encompassing capability areas and fifty sub-domains. This established a firm baseline (see figure: Capability Quadrants).

With such focussed data, the team established a picture of current state against which they could measure improvement.

Plan actions for the greatest benefit

Mason explains how the data highlighted areas for intervention, “We found that the greatest challenge was the lack of communication and understanding between the program team and the delivery teams implementing the solutions.”

iQA selected twelve improvement areas from the Organisation, Technical, and Delivery quadrants  Intense training on the value of developing a Minimum Viable Product or MVP, supported by continuous delivery – a technique from the DevOps bag of tricks – ranked as the highest value actions.

Over the course of the coaching, Mason and Armstrong watched the teams continue their agile and technical practices journey. They gained an understanding and focus on how to deliver as a team, explains Mason, “It was satisfying to watch the teams and reluctant personalities begin to cooperate and communicate. They started to come together and work with each other in a collaborative way to deliver the minimum viable product.”

A developer on the project explains how working with a team-level coach provided confidence to improve. “That might sound odd, but by leading discussions and focusing the team on what was right in front of us, the coach showed us how small nudges can eventually grow into large improvements. Once we bought into the ideas, confidence and engagement took off.”

See improvements and embed changes

The Project Manager, senior stakeholder and the Program Managers, reviewed maturity during and at the end of the experimental period.

Capability Improvement Radar

Within the two months, the team had reached the coaching targets in five of the twelve target areas and had improved the remaining seven areas.

In addition, the coaching established and embedded contemporary rituals such as program refinement and planning meetings. “In the future, we expect the program team and team leads to run a scaled scrum environment focused on continuous alignment. In this way the delivery teams can deliver both incrementally and iteratively, building on the MVP and delivering valuable small changes,” explains Mason.

“It’s been a great experience for us. To be honest, I don’t think we realised what we were missing before. But now we understand how we grow and keep alignment of the teams with the business. Our productivity has improved and we have the tools to keep improving,” says the developer.