One of the questions we explore in my "Agile Coaching Skills" training course is when to adapt your coaching style. I draw an arrow running from Directive to Non-Directive, like the middle arrow in the sketch below, to represent one important aspect of coaching style. I explain that the coaching style you adopt depends on the experience of the team members (topmost arrow) and your own experience (bottom arrow).


A heavily directive approach would be one where people are firmly told to follow a specific set of agile practices, as in Shock Therapy popularised by Jeff Sutherland. There's no choice being made by the team, they rely totally on the expertise of the agile coach to determine an approach suitable for their situation. The reason that they are willing to do this is that they recognise that they are new to agile and don't have the skills to decide what's appropriate. The agile coach acts as their guide and mentor enabling them to enter a new world of agile software development. Many coaches would consider this directive coaching style to be more consulting or teaching than coaching.

A totally non-directive approach would be where a coach relies purely on asking thought-provoking questions and sharing their observations to help a team identify alternative ways of working. In theory, this coach need not have any subject matter expertise in applying agile practices, they leave the choice of where to go upto the team. This approach works in situations where the team has built up enough knowledge in basic agile practices to apply them. However, the team is still struggling to overcome mental blocks about what is allowed within their organisation and see how they might improve. The coach's questions helps this team break through obstacles in their way and reveal choices open to them. A team that is new to agile, and is still grappling with building basic skills, may find this coaching style frustrating because people want definitive answers while they're learning and don't feel confident to experiment yet.

As agile coaches, we work with teams with a variety of experiences and so we need to remember to adapt our coaching style accordingly. Some teams are just embarking on their agile journey, others are already partway down the agile road, teams may also contain a mixture of new and experienced team members. We need to recognise where the team is at and adapt our coaching style to match the needs of the team. So when the team is new, we need to be prepared to act as teacher. As the team gains confidence, we need to recognise that it's time to step back and help them build a sense of autonomy, enabling the team members to choose where to go next rather than supplying all the answers. To take the team on this journey, it helps to have some experience of applying agile to draw on so you can support the team with directive style guidance when they get stuck.

Remember also that a team's agile journey is not usually a straightforward one where they load up with new agile practices at the beginning and simply perfect their application of those initial practices as they go. The road most teams travel has many twists and turns. Depending on the terrain the team encounters, it may be appropriate to learn new practices and drop or unlearn old habits along the way. As agile coaches, we need to see when to step in with guidance and direction to help the team learn a new skill and when to step back into non-directive style coaching. Be prepared to switch in and out of these styles throughout your time with the team.