Challenges and Advice for an Agile Coach

Interview with Agile-Guru, Jem D’Jelal

Jem has worked with large corporations to small start-ups. Product agnostic, from Investment Banking to Pharma. His experience comes from a variety of environments and has been around scrum & agile for most of his career, where he helps teams do things better.

Jem has worked with 40+ teams all in different states, all with different needs. His focus over the past three years has been organisational design, helping with restructuring and coaching C level members on mindset surrounding empirical thinking and servant leadership.

What was the biggest challenge in your career and how did you overcome it?  

The biggest challenges tend to be when I’m hired by somebody at C level and they want to use Agile, but they want to use it in a forceful time way.

So the intention is good, but the implementation is where we might have a difference of opinion.

You can’t always overcome that because it means you must change people’s minds, so I think it’s a case of raising awareness to what’s important. For example, getting them to stop thinking about practices and the things they want to implement and coming back to the essence of Agile, which is a more principled approach.

Getting them to think in a more experimental mindset. In other words, things will fail, things will happen and as long as they’re survivable experiments that’s fine.

And finally the most important thing is to know if you want a transformation, you want to create a change, the people doing the work have to be involved in that change. So we want to try and create engagement over compliance. This comes down to kind to exploring mindset with people in leadership, and that can be challenging if somebody’s worked 30-40 years in a certain way. So you do the best you can to raise awareness and you take it from there.

What is the difference between scrum master and agile coach?

A Scrum Master can wear many hats. They can be a facilitator, mentor, coach, team player. An Agile coach can also be those things but the main difference to me is that a coach’s somebody who is there to really probe and try to cultivate the landscape of where the team are. They can still mentor but what they’re trying to do is help people come to their own decisions on where they want to go.

For me, coaching is more about understanding people’s strengths and challenges, and helping them exercise their abilities to reach their goals.

I think there is a hint in the name ‘Scrum Master’. It’s about utilizing the Scrum framework and therefore sometimes there’s probably more mentoring which happens; where somebody comes in and says okay here are a set of practices, values and principles, these things can work in these contexts. So they can still do coaching but I think the Scrum Master role is more focused on mentoring and bringing the Scrum framework to life.

Whereas the Agile coaching role, for me, is more about cultivating and helping people come to their own answers for their own problems. I’m going to contradict that now by saying Scrum master can also do that.

What advice would you give yourself before entering the world of agile coaching?

I would say to never, ever resort to force or coercion when it comes to helping people take on change. If you don’t have the people engaged when you’re talking about transformation and change, you will lose them so that would be my advice: engagement over compliance.

What common problem have you faced when helping businesses transform to agile?

People like the idea of Agile, but sometimes the reality doesn’t always create a pleasing experience. That’s because whether using Scrum or Kanban or just the Agile principles, what often happens is it bubbles all the problems up to the top, and it’s like a mirror which shows you all of your dysfunction.

Often that can be uncomfortable for the people who have worked in a certain way, for a period of time. The key is to be able to deliver that information in an objective, non-judgmental way. A useful way is to say here are the problems that we can see, and here are some things that we can maybe experiment with to make them better.

How do you see the role of an agile coach?

Forbes, the Business Harvard Review, and many other like well-known publications and of course many products that we use ourselves in day-to-day life, they’re all using some form of the principles for Agile.

We know from things like the Version 1 report of the state of Agile that for example, Scrum is getting bigger as well as Kanban, so the use geographically is being used more outside of the technology industry.

Do you see the demand for agile changing in the future?

I don’t ever see it going away, as the roll itself or the essence of agile. Fundamentally, an entity or a change agent that allows you to validate an idea early to manage risk gives a voice to the people doing the work, to make them intrinsically motivated to be their best or to be able to create cutting-edge product to beat your competitor.

I don’t ever see any business not wanting these things, so I can see that it’s going to be an ongoing role. I do think that the title could change, it could manifest into a new shell, but I think the essence of a change agent helping us think empirically, something which allows team members to be empowered, something that embraces servant leadership, I don’t see that going away.

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