Understanding ACI’s Agile Coach Competency Framework (Part 1)

Agile Coaching. A seemingly simple term that causes so much confusion. Much of the confusion seems to stem from the reasonable question of  “what does an agile coach do?” The Agile Coaching Institute (ACI) defined an Agile Coach Competency Framework a few years back. I’ve used the framework both internally at organizations and in more public venues (conferences, etc.). I find it valuable to help people to understand the different perspectives they can approach agile coaching from. In addition to using the framework in Advanced Scrum Master Training or Agile Coach Training, and Advancing Agility Training, I find it offers leaders insights into how they can shift from a leader-follower to a leader-leader approach to leadership. The ACI Whitepaper by Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd outlines the framework. This article includes my summary of it based on multiple sources — as well as my personal experience with it and ways to learn from it.

Agile coaches work in service to and with clients, helping them achieve the amazing results they are capable of.

Understanding ACI’s Agile Coach Competency Framework

ACI’s Agile Coach Competency Framework breaks agile coaching into eight competencies and a coaching stance. As I have explored the Framework with clients, there are many insights and ideas I take away from the framework that may or may or may not have been intended. This is one of the reasons I like the framework – there are always new lessons in the looseness of it.

Given this is a framework and not a model (a model would include significant details spelling out learning objectives or even explaining “how” to do agile coaching), expect that each time you use it with people, you will learn new things.  This can’t be overstated.  Additionally, since this is not a model, perhaps that leads to confusion — since some may be looking for more details.

A few things to know as you read.  I will talk about what “space” you are standing in or coming from.  You can imagine yourself actually standing in one of these spaces on the diagram below (or in the photo).  Standing in Teaching for example and bringing that mindset, perspective, or approach to a coaching situation.  

Domain Competencies

There are three “domain” competencies: technical mastery, business mastery and transformation mastery. I show them in light green in the diagram. Technical Mastery is focused on the technical nature of software development (architecture, software craftsmanship, etc.). Business Mastery is focused on strategy, operations, process, and product innovation. Transformation Mastery is focused on change leadership, organizational change, facilitation, and helping organizations transform and evolve.

For domain competencies, the initial thinking (from ACI) was that most people would typically focus on one of these areas for mastery. I believe this is true given the potential depth of each area. For a long time, I felt like I had a foot in transformation and foot in business. At this point I find I primary stand in transformation, but I still have at least a big toe in business! I also find that there is some fuzziness when we look some concepts (e.g. lean and/or theory of constraints). Using those two examples, these can be very business focused to a lot of people, but there are core elements of both that have to do with culture and transformation of more than simply a business process.

The term “mastery” is used with each of these terms (e.g. business mastery). This does not mean that as an agile coach you have mastery in any of the domain competencies (although you may have deep knowledge in any of them), it means you are working towards mastery as a journey. I look the domain competencies from the frame of T-shaped people. You may have a lot of depth in one area, but you can still have knowledge in other areas.

I know a number of agile coaches that are focused on technical mastery and can do amazing things in the transformation space as well.  One way to identify your passion is to ask yourself this simple question: “if you had $3,000 to spend in training, where would you spend the money?” For me, the answer is — the transformation space. But that is just me, where would you spend it? There is certainly not one right answer on which one you need to focus on as an agile coach. We need agile coaches who bring knowledge from all of these domains! One of the most important points to really let sink in is that none of these is more important than the other. They are all valuable and needed.  Many people find they were in one and have moved to another over time. That is okay as well, as long as you are satisfied where you are.

Content and Process Competencies

There are two process competencies (facilitation and professional coaching) and two content competencies (teaching and mentoring). These are in blue in the diagram.

Process and content competencies are a bit different than domain competencies.  The agile coach is at choice (ideally) on where to stand as a coach, based on the clients needs. There are factors that may influence their ability to be fluid and provide coaching from all four, which I’ll talk about later.ACI-Agile-Coach-Competency-Framework

On the left side, we have teaching and mentoring. These are typically about imparting knowledge (or “content”).

Teaching is really just that, it is about teaching people something. This could be teaching them how sprint planing works or teaching them about agile values.  Typically teaching has some pre-defined outcomes or objectives. This is where the agile “expert” may live telling people how to do something.  This is certainly needed by many clients in many situations, especially as they get started with agile or when learning about new ideas.

Mentoring is definitely also focused on imparting knowledge. Mentoring might sound like “in my experience… I tried this and… .” You are still relaying your experience, but in a more subtle way and are less likely to have a ‘training agenda’.

On the right side, we have facilitation and professional coaching. These competencies are more focused on holding a process or space for people to bring their intelligence and creatively to tackle challenges, learn, and improve. This does NOT mean people who desire teaching and mentoring are not intelligent! It only means that specific to the items they are working on, teaching and mentoring is more appropriate. Another way to look at it is that on the right, we are helping people to uncover ideas and knowledge they were not aware they have.

Facilitation is about holding that impartial stance. You may facilitate the team through a retrospective, but you are impartial. Your goal is to hold them to the agreed on guidelines, but you do not have a specific expected outcome. When you come across a person who is supposed to be facilitating and is also supposed to “manage” the team — you can quickly see why this creates conflicts. They are not impartial.

Professional Coaching is about being impartial to the goal. Coming from professional coaching, you believe, truly, that the team can solve the problems they have. You work with them to help the team to solve those issues and be their best selves. I believe this is the most challenging space to stand in because it requires you to trust and honor the wisdom of the people and the team. That is not trivial, even in the best organizations in the world.  Coaching a team from the professional coaching space means that you are not teaching by imparting specific knowledge about a solution. You are helping the team to solve the problem via their own knowledge (which is always greater than believed). I typically start coaching engagements from this space (this is my preference – it may not be yours).

Agile & Lean Practitioner

The premise of the Agile and Lean Practitioner competency is that anyone who is an agile coach must have deep knowledge of agile and lean. Where this gets more interesting (to me at least) is when you look at agile and lean combined with say technical mastery. You may have a lot of experience with agile and lean from a technical software development standpoint, but less with organizational transformation (or vice versa). So the domain competencies start to play together with each person’s foundational experience with agile and lean.

The Coaching Stance

The coaching stance is what ACI refers to as “the heart” of ACI’s Agile Coach Competency Framework. The coaching stance is supposed to be the place you start from and return to. The elements highlighted (in the whitepaper) are maintaining neutrality, serving the client’s agenda, reducing client dependence, not colluding, and signature presence.  I see “signature presence” as being similar to “bring yourself” (which I talk about in Thoughts on Agile Coaching). I have thought about the coaching stance like a “coaching home” where you can check-in to ground yourself.

You can think about your coaching approach as an awesome pair of shoes. Think about the most comfortable foot wear you have — this could be dress shoes, bunny slippers, flip flops, sneakers, boots, just socks or even just bare feet (or bear feet if that works).  As you consider which competency helps inform the coaching situation (more on this below) you are working on, consider the footwear you are wearing.  Are you bringing your best-self to the client?  Are you in service with the client?  Are you helping them, in the best way possible, to be amazing? You should be wearing the footwear that grounds you and guides you in your service to the client.  These “shoes” are something you can wear as you move around the competencies. They ground you — in you!

In Learning from ACI’s Agile Coach Competency Framework (Part 2), I discuss ways to use the framework to bring new insight to your coaching, your teams, and yourself.

Looking to learn how to deal with real-world scenarios as an agile coach? Take a look at Agile Leadership – an in depth coach training course for leaders, managers, and agile coaches! Learn how to help teams advance on their journey to high performance and tackle major agile myths.

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Jake Calabrese

Jake Calabrese is a coach, trainer, and coach-consultant working to help organizations meet the promise of agile by going beyond agile practices to address culture challenges and help teams and leaders reach and maintain high performance. He has unique expertise as an Organization & Relationship Systems Certified Coach (ORSCC), a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST), Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC), and Professional Certified Coach (PCC), and as a trainer and coach for Agile Companies (helping non-software organizations use agile). Jake created the AgileSafari cartoon series to introduce humor into the more challenging issues we have to tackle. Jake uses ideas from various areas of thinking such as: Lean, professional coaching, neuroscience, psychology, facilitation, brain-based training, improvisation, agile, kanban, and scrum. Jake regularly speaks at local and national conferences including Mile High Agile, Scrum Gathering, and Agile Alliance Agile20xx conferences.


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