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How to become a credible Agile Coach today

| Xavier Quesada Allué

This article is written for current and aspiring Agile Coaches and for those looking to hire an Agile Coach to support their organization's agile journey.

One of the most frequently asked questions in the Agile community is about career path orientation. Demand for Scrum Masters and Agile coaches continues to rise, and with it, there is a plethora of definitions and qualifications that make it difficult to figure out what are the right skills, experience level and credentials that give you the right to call yourself an “Agile Coach” and be taken seriously. 

Why should you trust the author?

I built my first Agile team in 1999. In 2006, I started working as an Agile Coach and have never stopped. In 2009, I became one of the first Scrum Alliance Certified Agile Coaches. I have been heavily involved in the international agile community for almost 15 years, and as the founder and co-CEO of Agilar, a leading agile consulting, training and coaching company, I have good insights into the market - both from the perspective of customers, of coaches, and of the certification bodies. I am also one of the longest-serving volunteers of the Scrum Alliance Trainer Approval Community, the toughest agile certification body in the world that grants the most prestigious, most valuable and hardest to get Agile certification - the CST. 

What does “Agile” really mean today?

Before discussing how to become a credible Agile Coach, let’s align on what we mean by “Agile” today.

The term comes from the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development”, but the word "Agile" on its own has never been officially defined by the authors. The Manifesto that was crafted 20 years ago was intended specifically for the context of developing software, mostly within a single team, product or project. The Manifesto has been wildly successful and has given birth to the Agile movement, creating the momentum we live in now.

But if today you would consider "Agile" only as a way of working with software, or a way to manage product development or projects, you would be severely limiting yourself.

We have grown way beyond that. In 2021, we need to broaden our definition and set a new baseline to be able to properly discuss the role of the modern Agile Coach.

Today, when we talk about "Agile", we need to be talking about "Agile Organizations" and "business agility". Today’s advanced agile coaching challenges lie less in the coaching of teams, software products and individuals and more in the coaching of leadership, the broader business and organizational transformation.

What is an "Agile organization"?

Let's extract the essence of the Agile Manifesto -the type of teams, culture and ways of working the authors were proposing. Let’s extrapolate that to the business reality we face today. 

Today, what we call an “Agile organization" is a place that stands out by exhibiting a unique culture and approach to work. Agility is not about methodologies, specific practices or tools, but about integrating and exhibiting certain coherent behaviors and mindset that deliver tangible and measurable results.

We can describe an organization as “Agile” if they achieve many of the following:

  • Being significantly more responsive and adaptive to changing market conditions and consumer needs than before. 
  • Innovating and outpacing their less agile competitors by delivering products and integrating feedback quickly and frequently - typically by implementing customer-centric, iterative-incremental, team-based, inspect-and-adapt approaches to new product development.
  • Building and delivering high quality products and services, working at a sustainable pace while demonstrating respect for their employees, customers, stakeholders and the broader environment & community.
  • Remaining competitive not only through innovation but also through high standards of operational excellence and continuous learning and improvement.

Very few organizations can honestly claim they meet all these criteria, but that should not deter us. We should take these as a set of guidelines or characteristics to aspire to, in a quest to improve our organizational culture, effectiveness and way of working. The Agile movement brings us guidelines for building organizations that are healthy, successful, and fit for the future.

What is an "Agile Coach" today? How has the role evolved?

Historically, the best description of the role of an Agile Coach comes from Lyssa Adkins’ book “Coaching Agile Teams”. This was a landmark book when it came out and is still the authoritative book on the subject today - go and read it if you haven’t. But it is from 10 years ago, and these were simpler times. There were no scaling frameworks, no big talk of agile beyond software or business agility back then. Based on our definition of agility, a modern Agile Coach retains all that Lyssa taught us and extends it, as you become more senior, to focus more on the challenges of coaching leadership and guiding entire organizations that want to become “more Agile”.

Besides the focus on organizational transformation, another trend from the last 10 years is the addition of stronger classic coaching skills to the Agile Coach profile. Nobody was talking about ICF or ORSC certifications 10 years ago. Chapter 5 of Lyssa's book might have started this trend.

Finally, while 10 years ago practically every Agile Coach had a software development background, today it has become widely accepted that this is not required.

Another name for the role of Agile Coach is Scrum Master, by the way. A Scrum Master is exactly the same as an Agile Coach. Scrum Master is the specific terminology for Agile Coach used in Scrum. Since most Agile implementations include at least some amounts of Scrum, and Scrum is the most popular agile method in the world, the two terms are almost synonymous.

What does an Agile Coach do on a daily basis?

Depending on your level of seniority, skills, interests, and the general organizational context, as a modern Agile Coach you do one or more of the following:

  • Training, teaching and mentoring on a variety of Agile topics (both mindset and practices) to a team or a broader audience.
  • Implementing new processes related to adopting an agile approach.
  • Protecting teams from interruptions and distractions.
  • Chasing or resolving blockers and general problem-solving within the context of an Agile team.
  • Facilitating workshops and meetings with a professional facilitator approach.
  • “Real” business, leadership and personal coaching (ICF style).
  • Internal consulting (advising) on topics related to Agile (mostly to leadership).
  • Designing, documenting and communicating new processes and methodologies related to Agile; Agile organizational design.
  • Leading change & communication in the context of an agile transformation.
  • Co-creating operating models & scaled/de-scaled approaches fit for the organization.
  • Proposing experiments and driving continuous improvement in the ways of working of the organization.
  • Continuously learning and staying ahead of new trends and ideas that might be useful to your organization in the future within the context of ways of working and organizational design.
  • Plus many other compatible things I’m forgetting...

All these activities fit nicely together in a coherent way. You are the expert, you have the mindset, and your responsibilities are all related to informing, guiding, implementing and sustaining this new way of working.

In summary, an Agile Coach is a teacher, a mentor, a guide, a coach, a facilitator, a problem solver, a consultant, an eternal learner and a servant leader - all within the context of an organization that wants to become more Agile or sustain its agility.

Can I rightfully call myself an Agile Coach? How do I obtain credibility?

One of the most problematic and confusing situations in the market today for employers, customers and coaches alike is that many people are calling themselves “Agile Coach” on LinkedIn without being able to justify the title credibly.

This is an unregulated market, so there are no barriers to entry. There are no legally binding certifications or accreditations. There is no common, agreed understanding and definition of the job or the levels of seniority.

Even having validated experience, there is no simple way to assess the results an Agile Coach obtained in a past engagement or the relative difficulty of the challenges they faced.

Unfortunately, we must confront the possibility that many Agile Coaches might be overselling themselves. Agile demand has grown exponentially in recent years, and the needs of organizations serious about change surpass the skill and experience of most coaches in the market.

We are lacking granularity and standardization of the profession. The universal title “Agile Coach” is not giving us enough useful information on what the actual level of seniority of the coach is, what impact they can have, or what challenges they can successfully tackle.

Case study: a scale of Agile Coaching levels of seniority

Within Agilar, in an attempt to create some clarity for ourselves and for our customers, we have come up with a seniority scale based on our 15 years of experience doing this job ourselves and the natural progression we feel we have gone through.

These are the levels of seniority in our Agile Coach career path, and some examples of what impact you could typically expect from a coach at each level.

Level 0 - Agile team member

Working in an agile team as a non-coaching member (Developer or Product Owner) is for many people the first recommended step. It is uncommon to start coaching a team if you have never actually worked in an agile environment yourself.

Minimum recommended time in role: 6 months

Recommended Scrum Alliance certification: obtain the CSM

Level 1 - Scrum Master or Junior Agile Coach

Impact:

  • Basic coaching of one team, getting them to an “MVP” level of agile maturity (we call this "Basecamp 1" in our Agile Maturity Assessment)
  • Coaching a Product Owner from “business”

Community impact

  • Participating in internal CoP and public community events

Minimum recommended time in role: 1 year

Recommended Scrum Alliance certification transition: CSM to A-CSM

Level 2 - Agile Coach

Impact:

  • Getting one team to really high performance levels
  • Basic scaling
  • Coaching multiple teams (with Scrum Masters) simultaneously
  • Coaching and training of a broader range of business & stakeholders
  • Coaching at product level for medium sized products

Community impact

  • Leading internal CoP
  • Presenting at or organizing community events

Minimum recommended time in role: 2 years

Recommended Scrum Alliance certification transition:  A-CSM to CSP-SM

Level 3 - Senior Agile Coach

Impact:

(In a small to medium organization)

  • Coaching a scaled approach
  • Coaching senior management
  • Leading a transformation
  • ICF style coaching

(In a medium to large organization)

  • Coaching at middle management level 
  • Coaching at tribe level / department level / large product level
  • In-house training
  • Possible specialization into niche areas

Community impact

  • Presenting at larger conferences
  • Basic writing and thought leadership (blog posts, simple experience reports, etc.)

Minimum recommended time in role: 3 years

Recommended Scrum Alliance certification transition: CSP-SM to CTC

Level 4 - Enterprise Agile Coach

Impact:

(only relevant for medium to large organizations)

  • Coaching a scaled approach
  • Coaching senior management, leading a transformation, operating model design.
  • Coaching HR, Finance, etc.
  • Public training

Community impact

  • Creating new learning offerings
  • Presenting at major conferences, etc.
  • Intermediate writing and thought leadership (original articles, deeper case studies, etc.)

Minimum recommended time in role: n/a

Recommended Scrum Alliance certification transition: CTC to CEC

  • Level 5 - Senior Enterprise Agile Coach

Impact: 

(only relevant for medium to large organizations)

  • Coaching/consulting at executive level (C-level)
  • Advanced speaking, writing and thought leadership (keynote speaker, original ideas, etc.)

Minimum recommended time in role: n/a

Recommended Scrum Alliance certification transition: CEC to CST

As you advance through each level of seniority you:

  • Grow in depth and breadth of impact within your organization
  • Can mentor/coach the levels beneath you
  • Grow your public exposure and thought leadership within your organization and in the broader Agile community

This is our current model. It is imperfect and continuously evolving. This is what we use for ourselves, internally, to qualify ourselves and also to set pricing guidelines for our customers. Since we have been around for a while and have some large multinationals as customers, you could say that this model is somewhat tested in the market. But it is by no means an industry standard, and probably it’s too simplistic and unidimensional for the broader industry. We offer it to the reader as a possible starting point, and as an industry case study. We challenge it ourselves: are the depictions of what each level should be able to do fair? Aren’t they very context-dependent? What about those certification levels and minimum time in each role? Everything is debatable. But examples are useful to start conversations.

Remember: seniority and impact in Agile Coaching is a bit like productivity in software - it’s extremely hard to measure, but it definitely exists.

Agile Certifications

If you want to claim that you are a serious Agile Coach it would be helpful to be able to show a strong certification supporting this claim.

The Agile world is full of entry-level certifications that are very easy to get. You can get foundation level Agile certifications by taking a simple exam or sitting in class for two days. But should you?

When considering foundation level certifications, keep in mind the following:

  • Foundation level certifications only certify is that you have been to a class or passed a simple exam. You should consider them an entry point, a validation of your basic understanding, not of experience or skill. Some people abuse entry-level certifications.
  • Since Agile is an unregulated industry, there are lots of opportunists. The certification space is shared between the most credible, established players and entities no one ever heard of. Do your research before buying a foundation level certification product. 

    If you have heard negative comments about certifications, it is probably related to one of the two points above. When looking at certifications, look into the full certification path and not just the entry point. All the controversy surrounding certifications applies only to foundation level certifications, not intermediate or advanced ones. 

Foundation vs Advanced certifications

A foundation level certification validates understanding, not the application. If the theory is simple, the exam will be easy. This does not mean the certification is weak. It all depends on the certifying body. With the most prestigious bodies, different levels of certification exist and they should be understood and judged correctly.

Ten years ago, we only had only one popular certification in the Agile world  - the Scrum Alliance CSM (Certified Scrum Master). It was a foundation level certification requiring a 2-day training and it didn’t even have an exam. It was very easy to get (and still is today). The value was never in the certification - it was always in taking the training, in the learning, and in joining the Scrum Alliance community. This is so important to the Scrum Alliance that you are not able to get their foundation level certifications without taking training delivered by a Certified Scrum Trainer.

Over the last 10 years, the CSM has been extended with a path of intermediate and advanced certifications that certify you have real life experience in Agile Coaching. These intermediate and advanced certifications are worth your time and should be considered because they require mastery and are progressively harder to get.

The Scrum Alliance certification path

The Scrum Alliance is the oldest, most prestigious, and only non-profit Agile certification body in the world. Most well known book authors and thought leaders of the Agile movement are affiliated with the Scrum Alliance. The Scrum Alliance has a rigorous, transparent and peer-reviewed top-level Agile certification that is incredibly strict and hard to get - the Certified Scrum Trainer (CST). To get this certification, you need to be one of the top Agile experts in the world. You need to be an expert Agile coach, an expert Agile trainer and a recognized Agile community leader.

Asides from the CST, the Scrum Alliance has another rigorous, hard to get, peer-reviewed top-level certification: the Certified Enterprise Coach (and its little sister, the Certified Team Coach). These certifications, grouped together, are called Certified Agile Coach by the Scrum Alliance - and these are the only reliable, solid, expert-level Agile Coaching certifications in the world. Of course, they are also very hard to get.

To get to the highest levels of Agile Coaching certification in the Scrum Alliance, you need to follow the official certification path. And the learning objectives of these certifications are a pretty decent indicator of your level of seniority as an Agile Coach.

The path is:

Certified Scrum Master (CSM) -> Advanced Certified Scrum Master (A-CSM) -> Certified Scrum Professional (CSP-SM)

Each level, roughly, corresponds to what we call a Junior Agile Coach, a “normal” Agile Coach and a Senior Agile Coach.

It’s not a perfect match and there might be ways to hack the system and get to CSP without being that experienced - but for the most part, you can expect that people who are CSP-SM will have at least two to three years of solid experience working as an Agile Coach and quite a few battle scars under their belt. This is more credibility than any other certification can offer.

Conclusion

If you are looking to hire or be hired as a credible Agile Coach I recommend you aim for Scrum Alliance A-CSM level certification as an entry point.

If you want to build a serious career as an Agile Coach, I recommend you follow the Scrum Master certification path of the Scrum Alliance and try to get to CTC as a minimum. The certifications are high quality, built and managed by volunteers of the Agile community, offered by a non-profit, and -except for the foundation level CSM- they require experience and become harder and harder to get the more you move forward. They are worth pursuing. 

If you do not believe in certifications, or do not want to invest in them (or cannot afford them), I would still recommend you study the Learning Objectives of the Scrum Alliance Scrum Master certification path. Use them as guidance towards self-assessing your seniority and growing in your craft as a modern, credible Agile Coach.

Good luck on your journey!